Elders of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois have now admitted that founder and former senior pastor Bill Hybels "entered into sin," adding that they should have believed the women who made sexual misconduct accusations against him earlier this year.
"We apologize and ask for forgiveness that the tone of our initial response was not one of humility and deep concern for all the women involved. It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story," the elders of the evangelical megachurch wrote in a statement published on Saturday.
"We are grieved that we let Bill's statement stand for as long as we did that the women were lying and colluding. We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth."
Hybels, who founded Willow Creek in 1975, resigned prematurely in April following a Chicago Tribune investigative piece published a month earlier, in which several women accused him of sexual misconduct.
The allegations included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. Hybels firmly denied all wrongdoing and said they were lies.
One woman who accused him of a prolonged consensual affair later retracted her claims.
Willow Creek Community Church's elder board carried out an internal and external investigation into the allegations, both of which cleared Hybels of misconduct. They also held "family" meetings with the congregation where Hybels denied each woman's accusation and offered his version of the events.
"The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies," he said at a meeting in March.
Hybels retired in April while still declaring his innocence, saying the the controversy had become a distraction to the ministry.
In the meantime, newer allegations of misconduct were made.
In May, Pam Orr, then chair of the elder board, admitted that they failed to hold Hybels "accountable to specific boundaries" and not all of the women's stories were lies.
Willow Creek Lead Pastor Heather Larson also spoke out in a statement on Saturday, noting that she and Lead Teaching Pastor Steve Carter are looking to acknowledge mistakes that have been made in the past few "excruciating" months.
"I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill," Larson wrote.
"To the women directly, I can't imagine how painful the past months have been for you, and I am so sorry for my part in that."
She claimed that she did not agree with Willow Creek's initial decision to characterize the women's stories as lies, and said that she should have "jumped in" right away and made that known.
"I ask for forgiveness that I did not personally declare that sooner," she continued.
"In full transparency of what was going on in me, one of the hardest parts for me was that I did not agree with how the information came out in the media, and I allowed that to get in the way of focusing on the pain of these women. I am sorry. I should have listened more to why the women felt like they were forced to take that path."
Larson added that she is "deeply sorry" over the situation, specifically that Willow Creek did not begin its investigation first by listening to the stories of the women.
"It grieves me that people felt like they had to take sides and that this situation has created such division. I long for personal conversations, for ownership, for repentance, for healing," she wrote.
Carter, meanwhile, referenced a post last week by New Testament scholar and author Scot McKnight, who argued that Willow Creek has lost decades of trust with the way it handled the allegations against Hybels.
Carter said that he agrees with McKnight's conclusion.
"Specifically, I do not think it should have been said that the women were lying or that they were colluding against Bill and the church. I believe the women and applaud their courage," the lead teaching pastor wrote.
"I have personally reached out to and connected with several of the victims and listened to their experiences. I have made private apologies to several of the women and their families for the way they have been treated. I thank God for the opportunity to seek grace and forgiveness from these individuals."
Carter admitted that he is not "blameless," given that he took part in family meetings, without first seeking "transparency and repentance."
"I wish I had done more to prevent the hurtful statements that were made, and to advocate more forcefully for what I believe would have been a more humble and Biblical approach," he stated.
"For this, I am deeply sorry and ask your forgiveness."